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Australia urged to call out human rights horror in the Philippines

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Elmer Labog and Meryl Quero-Asa of KMU at Parliament House, Canberra, urging Australia to commit to human rights in the Philippines (Image by Charlotte Kennedy-Cox)

Australia must demonstrate its commitment to human rights in the Philippines, where the Duterte Government is targeting union organisers, writes Timothy Ginty.

WHEN Marklen Maojo Maga was playing basketball with some friends, plainclothes security agents seized the 39-year old union organiser and forced him into an unmarked van, accusing him of possessing firearms and hand-grenades. Maga protested that he had just dropped off his son to school. His union questioned why would he be carrying explosives while playing basketball.  

Maga has remained imprisoned since his arrest on 22 February 2018. He is just one of the scores of union organisers who have been harassed, threatened with death and arrested under the government of President Rodrigo Duterte. At least 56 unionists have been extra-judicially killed, while some 27,000 lives have been taken in Duterte's "war on drugs".

On an advocacy tour of Australia in February this year, Filipino trade unionists Elmer Labog and Meryl Quero-Asa, of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) trade union federation, told stories similar to that of Marklen Maojo Maga's. 

The arrests and killings of trade unionists like Maga are part of systematic persecution of dissidents that Labog, chairman of the KMU, calls "red-tagging"

"Red-tagging is like marking a cow for slaughter. If you are red-tagged it essentially means that you are a target for surveillance, for the hit of the police and military. It means that the lives of people who are red-tagged become cheap. It is tantamount to products in the groceries, where the goods are discounted."

International officer of KMU Meryl Quero-Asa describes the process, saying:

They cannot label us as drug addicts, no-one would believe that we are taking drugs, so they try to make other labels for us that would suit their interests more. At first, it's just a label, that you're some kind of terrorist or group against the state. Second, you will be placed under surveillance and harassed. If you really are a good organiser, you will probably have death threats against you.

The Philippine union delegation's visit to Australia aimed to draw attention to the repression of trade unionists in the Philippines under Duterte, whose campaign to suppress dissent extends beyond trade unions to human rights activists, environmental defenders, journalists and student activists:  

It is a very difficult situation for [the union] now. It's a situation where the lives of trade unionists and others in the Philippines, especially the poor, are in grave danger.”

As the repression worsens in the Philippines, international condemnation has been growing. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has been leading an international campaign to pressure the Duterte Government to stop the "red-tagging" of unionists, while the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) has been negotiating an investigative mission to the Philippines.

Following global rallies at Philippine embassies and consuls across the world in December 2019, the Philippine Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) has now made indications that it will accept the high-level ILO mission to investigate trade union repression, establishing a technical working group to prepare for the ILO delegation. There is concern, however, that the Philippine Government will derail the process or lock out trade unions from participation in the investigations.

The still informal acceptance of the ILO mission came as Elmer Labog, chairman of the 115,000-member KMU labour federation, was meeting with federal and state parliamentarians in Canberra and Australia's capitals: 

We solicit the support of members of parliament to take urgent action on the attacks that the Duterte Government is unleashing against trade unions and many quarters in Philippine society.” 

While in Canberra, Labog spoke with Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong, Leader of the Greens Adam Bandt and a host of lower and upper house representatives, whom he called on to help “protect our lives and liberties” from a concerted attack on civil society by the Duterte regime. 

The union leader's primary request was for the Australian Government to immediately review and suspend The Enhanced Defence Cooperation Program. This $40 million-dollar military aid agreement is aimed at 'countering the regional terrorist threat' posed in the Philippines through delivering urban, air and maritime training activities.

Critics, including the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union and Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA – both co-hosts of Mr Labog's visit to Australia – argue that such funding for counter-terrorism operations risks compromising Australia's commitment to human rights abroad. President Duterte routinely labels civil society actors, environmental defenders and union activists as "terrorists", "communists", "subversives" and "enemies of the state"

Responding to questions from Senator Tim Ayres in Senate Estimates on 5 March 2020 – concerning the Australian Government's awareness of trade union repression in the Philippines – Julie Heckscher of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), responded:

"There are concerns that we have about the human rights situation in the Philippines. Some of our areas of concern include the crackdown on illegal drugs and the wide-spread extra-judicial killings, pressures on media freedoms, attempts to suppress government critics and proposals that the death penalty be reintroduced."

As trade union repression was omitted from this list of human rights violations, Senator Ayres pressed Ms Heckscher, asking: "Is there an awareness inside the Department about repression of trade union activity in the Philippines?”

The DFAT representative gave a general response, saying:

“We generally keep an eye on the human rights situation in the Philippines.” 

Human and labour rights advocates, however, insist that the Australian Government must go beyond "general" awareness and act in a way that would pressure the Philippine Government to respect human rights. 

At a minimum, advocates say, the Australian Government should conduct an audit into the opaque Enhanced Defence Cooperation Program to ensure that Australian public money is not contributing to human rights violations in the Philippines.

Going beyond an audit by suspending the agreement entirely would send an unambiguous signal to the Duterte regime that the international community will not cooperate with a military that is engaged in gross and systematic acts of violence against civil society actors.

Australia is a founding member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and signatory to its fundamental conventions protecting the right to organise and collectively bargain. As a key factor in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which protects the right to form trade unions in Article 23 – Australia's foreign policy and its diplomatic relationship with the Philippine Government must reflect this commitment to protecting the rights of organised labour. 

On his advocacy tour of Australia, Mr Labog appealed to this moral and legal obligation to act, saying:

The intensive harassment and repression of trade union members and working people in the Philippines deserve to be condemned by all who value basic human rights and the rule of law.”

Timothy Ginty is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia. His blog, Lives and Times: Writing on the World Around Us, features writing on the natural world, human diversity and social transformation.

Timothy Ginty is a freelance journalist based in Sydney. You can read more from Tim on his blog, Lives and Times: Writing on the World Around Us or follow him on Twitter @TimGinty.

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